Joe McFarland and his ‘signature’ are taking the state by storm

Posted Thursday, Dec. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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kennedy Rancher Joe McFarland woke up Thursday to news anchors debating whether Texas is “having a McFarland.”

“I’m not so sure I want a bad weather storm named for me,” said McFarland, 74, decades removed from his 1976 research at Texas A&M on winter storms.

For 30 years, he never knew meteorology students were taught about the McFarland Signature, an upper-level air pattern over Canada that signals Arctic winds and ice pushing deep into South Texas.

“I have never met these TV people talking about me,” he said, laughing over the phone from the Stephenville ranch where he retired from an A&M career teaching agricultural engineering and irrigation.

But he has looked at the weather map.

“This looks like a McFarland Signature, and a bad one,” he said.

He was a former Air Force colonel fresh out of the University of Oklahoma when his new boss at the National Weather Service in College Station gave him a rookie assignment.

That boss was Ray Jensen, who went on to retire as director of the weather service’s Southern Region office in Fort Worth.

“Joe was new, so I told him to start in the library and find a way to predict hard freezes in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Jensen, now 83 and ranching near Aquilla in Hill County.

“He was gone for days. I never saw him. Then he came back and said, ‘I found a clue.’”

McFarland said he studied old weather maps of devastating Valley freezes, particularly in 1951 and 1962, and struck out until he looked at air patterns at 18,000 feet, halfway up in the atmosphere.

Without going all weather-geek, I’ll just say he found the same precise atmospheric pattern over Hudson Bay repeatedly pushing Arctic air and ice deep into Texas or Florida.

He wrote a report that eventually became part of weather service training and college meteorology lessons, particularly at Texas Tech.

When Jensen presented the report to happy farmers and produce growers in the Valley, he gave it a brand name.

“I told them we found a forecast method,” Jensen said, “and I called it the McFarland Signature.”

Some TV weather anchors use the term. Others consider it insider lingo.

“McFarland observed strong Arctic outbreaks that went all the way to the Valley … but few meteorologists call it that,” said Rebecca Miller, a former meteorologist at KXAS/Channel 5 and KDAF/Channel 33.

She said she’d rather “convey that information without having to name it something.”

Even though Jensen named “the McFarland,” he laughed about anchors saying that today.

“I don’t watch TV weather very much, to be honest,” he said.

“I do my own forecast. I’m watching my cows.”

They predict winter.

Bud Kennedy’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538 Twitter: @BudKennedy

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